Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Too clever by half!


I am completely embarrassed by how much  this simple printing error undid me with the Memorial Day weekend crossword puzzle.

"Oh! This puzzle is really hard!" I said to my family, "There's an unclued entry here in the puzzle, what might it mean? And this other clue was missing entirely?"

Well, I ended up "solving" it anyway, though the part about Tim Cook went *way* over my head (and me a Bay Area resident! If anyone should have considered him a "celebrity" in the same sense as Cole Porter or Chet Baker, I guess it should have been me?)

Next time I guess I'll take a bit of a simpler approach to trying to figure things out ...

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A dear reader makes it crystal clear

It's funny, the mental blocks that prevent you from seeing something, even when it's staring you right in the face.

A devoted reader explains:

Accept a mid-October full of hail (5,2)

  • Accept: The definition, not part of the cryptic.
  • a mid-October full of hail: the cryptic clue.

The cryptic clue is then de-crypted, as follows:

  • a: The letter a, part of the solution.
  • mid-October: The letter o, part of the solution.
  • full of: The words that says it's a container cryptic (we're going to rearrange the parts to put some letters inside of other letters)
  • hail: The word greet, part of the solution.

So you have:

    a     o, full of greet,
  • or: a greet o
  • which is: agree to

Answer is agree to

Many thanks to my faithful correspondent!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Those Cryptics I mentioned...

Here they are, if you wondered:

  1. Refurbished laptops are vastly different (5,5) Poles Apart
  2. Associates of violent armed cops (9) Compadres
  3. Where you may see a North African in a suit, perhaps (7) Tunisia
  4. Smart panel working to create big business strategy (6,4) Master Plan
  5. Shakespeare's amazing breadth (3,4) The Bard
  6. Old means of communication is great help, surprisingly (9) Telegraph
  7. Or whisper Reformed prayer (9) Worshipper
  8. Listening, notice raspy upright swimmer (3,5) Sea Horse
  9. Like some editors' notes about prize for far-out subject? (12) Astrophysics
  10. Have children arrange procedure (9) Reproduce
  11. Farmworker eats hot poultry (8) Pheasant
  12. African nation angered by a Tesla alternative (10) Madagascar
  13. Technophobe diluted fluid (7) Luddite

And, just to keep you entertained, here are 5 more I solved this week:

  1. Outside of shops, one of Santa's reindeer lands (5,2,4)
  2. Blurriness spoiled mini-copiers (11)
  3. Infestation ruined Italian concert piece (11)
  4. Stated price, if only in good times (4-7)
  5. Caterer's hot new dessert (6,5)
  6. Acute sensitivity damaged retinal cone (11) (For some reason this took me a while!)

Some of these drove me crazy! Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon have done it to me again.

And sometimes, when I get them, I don't really understand why.

For example, I worked out that "Accept a mid-October full of hail (5,2)" must be "Agree to" because of cross-letters, but I don't really understand why that is the right answer.

Oh, well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Let's try to be glass half-full people, shall we?

The good news, according to the extremely detailed CA Open Data dashboard, is that major progress continues to be made:

  1. The state is testing more than 45,000 people per day. That's more than one in every thousand people, statewide.
  2. Hospitalization rates are at least steady, but in fact appear to be declining significantly.
  3. New cases, statewide, are routinely less than 2% increase per day

Sadly, the data are not all lovely. There are still a frightening number of new cases each day, there are still dozens of people dying each day, all across the state.

A particular detail is that there are certain counties that are really struggling to control their case load.

If you click through the top eight or so counties at the top of the list, you can see a few counties which are doing very, very well. Santa Clara county really stands out, and San Francisco county is also making dramatic strides.

But Riverside county, San Bernardino county, Alameda county, and San Diego county are all really, really struggling.

And of course Los Angeles county, far and away the largest county in California, with its 10+ million residents.

There's still a lot of work to be done, I'm afraid.

But go take a look at Santa Clara County! No, do better than that. Go look up Dr. Sara Cody.

Fifty years from now, people will be teaching their grandchildren about this amazing woman, and how she saved hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, not just in her home town, but across the Bay Area, across California, and across the entire Western United States.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Normal People: a very short review

Normal People is Sally Rooney's second novel.

But of course you knew that. It's a worldwide bestseller, it won or was a finalist for every fiction award of the year, it's a major Hulu TV series, it's the staple of every book club around the globe, and I'm sure I've barely begun to scratch the surface of Normal People's presence in our lives.

Rooney is clearly a major phenomenon, and I'm certainly a member of the bandwagon.

But what is it about her work that everyone finds so compelling? Normal People is in many ways similar to Conversations with Friends. Stylistically, Rooney maintains her simple, intimate approach, telling much of the story through dialogue (complete with her affectation of eschewing quotation marks), and keeping the overall plot, setting, and set of characters minimal in order to focus on the human relationships that are of so much interest to her. And from a subject matter point of view she is clearly still content to "write what she knows", focusing again on a young woman from country Ireland who has made it to Dublin to study and learn in the Big City, while maintaining her on-again, off-again relationship with her hometown first boyfriend.

But Normal People is different than Conversations with Friends in several ways, too. It's somehow simultaneously both more intimate and yet coarser. I think Rooney yearns to let us more deeply into the lives of her characters. Where Conversations with Friends often was content to perch on the back of a chair at a table of young artists arguing about politics and art, Normal People goes deep, deep into the lives of these two "normal people" (who spend most of the book trying to explain how far from normal they feel).

Along the way, in sometimes exhausting stretches, they suffer through problem after problem: jealousy, inadequacy, abuse, addiction, infidelity, depression, self-destructive behavior. All of it normal, but all of it painful.

It sounds awful, but because every page is told with love and empathy, the result is actually beautiful.

For example, here's Rooney showing how the slightest of mis-steps in a simple conversation, the merest of mis-understandings, can suddenly and unexpectedly become a major confrontation without anyone understanding how it happened:

Hey, listen. By the way. It looks like I won't be able to pay rent up here this summer. Marianne looked up from her coffee and said flatly: What?

Yeah, he said. I'm going to have to move out of Niall's place.

When? said Marianne.

Pretty soon. Next week maybe.

Her face hardened, without displaying any particular emotion. Oh, she said. You'll be going home, then.

He rubbed at his breastbone then, feeling short of breath. Looks like it, yeah, he said.

She nodded, raised her eyebrows briefly and then lowered them again, and stared down into her cup of coffee. Well, she said. You'll be back in September, I assume.

His eyes were hurting and he closed them. He couldn't understand how this had happened, how he had let the discussion get away like this. It was too late to say he wanted to stay with her, that was clear, but when had it become too late? It seemed to have happened immediately. He contemplated putting his face down on the table and just crying like a child. Instead he opened his eyes again.

Rooney is clearly fascinated by the power of writing to help convey things that you can't just get from surface observations.

Last summer she read one of Connell's stories for the first time. It gave her such a peculiar sense of him as a person to sit there with the printed pages, folded over in the top-left corner because he had no staples. In a way she felt very close to him while reading, as if she was witnessing his most private thoughts, but she also felt him turned away from her, focused on some complex task of his own, one she could never be part of. Of course, Sadie can never be part of that task either, not really, but at least she's a writer, with a hidden imaginary life of her own. Marianne's life happens strictly in the real world, populated by real individuals. She thinks of Connell saying: People are a lot more knowable than they think they are. But still he has something she lacks, an inner life that does not include the other person.

But little of Normal People is of this ilk. Rooney has very quickly moved far beyond the literary chitchat of Conversations with Friends, and what she is after now is bigger fish.

What is it that makes a relationship work? As Rooney so elegantly explains, it comes down to time, trust, and compromise:

I can stay and you can go, she says. It's just a year. I think you should do it.

He makes a strange, confused noise, almost like a laugh. He touches his neck. She puts the towel down and starts brushing the knots out of her hair slowly.

That's ridiculous, he says. I'm not going to New York without you. I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for you.

It's true, she thinks, he wouldn't be. He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life. He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different. And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely. Would she ever have been happy? And what kind of happiness might it have been? All these years they've been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she's made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that.


To be honest, I don't know what to do, he says. Say you want me to stay and I will.

She closes her eyes. He probably won't come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They've done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change each other.

You should go, she says. I'll always be here. You know that.

All too few of us are lucky enough to find another "little plant sharing the same plot of soil," what a lovely and perfect description!

Normal People is a marvelous novel, but what is more marvelous is how rapidly Rooney is developing as a writer. I can't wait for her next book, whatever it may be.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

ProPublica "Two Coasts, One Virus" report

ProPublica is out with their immense, enormous, almost overwhelming report on the first 3 months of dealing with the virus: Two Coasts. One Virus..

But from January on, her chief of staff, Sean Elsbernd, would scarcely let a day go by without bringing it up. Elsbernd and the director of public health, Dr. Grant Colfax, reminded Breed that her city had one of the largest Chinese American communities in the country. They thus paid close attention as the numbers of infected grew exponentially in Wuhan and the virus made its way across Europe.

Colfax was particularly well-suited to recognize the threat early. He was inspired to enter the medical profession some 30 years earlier by the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before Breed chose him to lead her Health Department, Colfax had worked in the Obama White House from 2012 to 2014, where he was the director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. He had been involved in response efforts to Ebola and SARS. He was plugged into the world-renowned epidemiology community in the area.

I think there can be no dispute that the Bay Area led the way in encouraging the rest of the country to take the threat seriously.

I only wish we could have been even more successful at getting that message across.

Here at home, where Alameda County continues to struggle to get its caseload under control, I am definitely concerned about what will happen in the upcoming months. I am lucky that I can continue to shelter at home while still working my regular hours, for the foreseeable future.

So I will.

Cryptically thinking

Like so many other people, I've been less physically active during these last few months. But I'm working on that, as I'm trying to resume activities like bicycle riding and perhaps even golf, to go with my regular long walks.

Meanwhile, though, I've been doing lots and lots of crossword puzzles. Beyond the traditional puzzle, my paper frequently includes some "variety" puzzles, of which one of my favorites is the "cryptic" crossword.

Cryptic crosswords change the rules.

The cryptic crossword clue typically involves lots of word-play, including but not limited to: homophones, anagrams, reversals, hidden words, puns, etc.

Here's a lovely example:

  • Terribly dim thing! (8)

The answer, in this case, is "midnight", which is indeed a "terribly dim thing", but more importantly is an anagram of "dim thing".

I went through a burst of these over the last few weeks and below have collected a baker's dozen of my favorite clues.

Typically a clue is a favorite of mine if it makes me chuckle or groan when I finally crack it, but sometimes I just find them elegant or whatever.

And I know these aren't really hard. To get really hard Cryptic Crossword Clues, you have to go get the ones in the Telegraph or the Sunday Times. But I'm a lightweight, what can I say?

I'll come back here in a few days and post the answers, so if you haven't cracked them yourself by then you can look them up :)

Oh, btw: the format here is to list the clue itself, followed by the number of letters in the answer. If the answer is multiple words, the length of each word is given.

  1. Refurbished laptops are vastly different (5,5)
  2. Associates of violent armed cops (9)
  3. Where you may see a North African in a suit, perhaps (7)
  4. Smart panel working to create big business strategy (6,4)
  5. Shakespeare's amazing breadth (3,4)
  6. Old means of communication is great help, surprisingly (9)
  7. Or whisper Reformed prayer (9)
  8. Listening, notice raspy upright swimmer (3,5)
  9. Like some editors' notes about prize for far-out subject? (12)
  10. Have children arrange procedure (9)
  11. Farmworker eats hot poultry (8)
  12. African nation angered by a Tesla alternative (10)
  13. Technophobe diluted fluid (7)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Erin Bromage's detailed explanation of the risks and how to minimize them.

Warning, heavy-duty COVID link ahead: The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them

In order to get infected you need to get exposed to an infectious dose of the virus; based on infectious dose studies with MERS and SARS, some estimate that as few as 1000 SARS-CoV2 viral particles are needed for an infection to take hold. Please note, this still needs to be determined experimentally, but we can use that number to demonstrate how infection can occur. Infection could occur, through 1000 viral particles you receive in one breath or from one eye-rub, or 100 viral particles inhaled with each breath over 10 breaths, or 10 viral particles with 100 breaths. Each of these situations can lead to an infection.

Certainly not light reading, but essential.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories: a very short review

One of my dear readers pointed me to a recent review of Tom Gauld's Department of Mind-Blowing Theories.

It looked like my sort of book.

And it was!

Gauld is a regular cartoonist for New Scientist and The Guardian, among others.

I won't claim that I find his cartoons to be side-splittingly funny. They're really more like Sidney Harris's work, with a fair bit of a Gary Larson style, where he looks at things sideways and often with a strong sense of the absurd.

Oh, and did I mention: they're science cartoons?

In these stressful times, we all need some stress relief. Heck, in any times, that's true.

What more is there to say?

Tom Gauld for the win.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere: a very short review

Little Fires Everywhere is everywhere, nowadays: it's been on the top of the bestseller lists for more than a year, it's been translated into many other languages, it's been adapted into a top-rated streaming TV series, it's in every bookstore.

OK, I don't know about the bookstore part, I have been remiss in my visits to the bookstores.

I don't know if I'm going to watch the TV series, but I very much liked reading Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere

One of my reactions to reading Little Fires Everywhere was that it seemed like it was two different books.

At the start, Ng displays a graceful touch, gently and fully immersing us in the lives of a collection of related families in the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (an upscale suburb of Cleveland):

life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.
For reasons I don't really understand, the story is set about 25 years ago, during the mid 1990's. I suspect that this is because Ng herself was a certain age at that time, and finds it easiest to write about the lives and thoughts and emotions of teenagers in a setting that matches the time and place when she herself was of that age.

Whatever, I think it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Ng nails it, and within just a few pages we are flying along, becoming enmeshed in all these separate-but-intertwined stories, feeling the feelings and seeing the sights of all the various people in the story.

For example, a central theme of the book is the relationships between mothers and their children:

Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of her mind from the hospital stay -- everything she thought she'd forgotten -- her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster. Was she just a poor speller, or was this a sign of mental impairment? Was her handwriting just messy, was she just bad at arithmetic, were her temper tantrums normal, or was it something worse? As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own. She had learned, with Izzy's birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course. Every time Mrs Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn't know how to unclench.

Note, too, the references to biology: "her body", "a cellular level", "microscopic", "that feeling", "a muscle". This, also, is a central theme of the book: is it the shared genome that connects parents and children, or can this relationship be formed via other means (adoption, IVF, surrogate parents, etc.)?

Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, Ng changes approach. She decides, for whatever reason, to turn the book into something between a detective story, a police procedural, and a thriller. Characters become investigators, and start to accumulate and uncover clues. Interviews are held, records are searched, accusations are made, trials are convened.

I'm not sure if Ng was impatient, wanting to cover a lot of ground quickly, and finding herself unsure about how to gently coax the various background stories out of the various characters, or if she just felt that she wanted to control how we received the enormous volume of information that is revealed in the second half of the book.

Or maybe she wanted to make a deeper point, about "people" and about "truth":

"Being a reporter," Pearl said. "I mean, being a journalist. You get to find out everything. You get to tell people's stories and figure out the truth and write about it." She spoke with the earnestness that only a teenager could truly have. "You use words to change the world. I'd love to do that." She glanced up at Mrs Richardson, who for the first time realized how very big and sincere Pearl's eyes were. "Like you do. I'd love to do what you do."

Well, the characters in this book certainly use words to change the world, but it's more like the way that a tailor uses scissors to cut fabric: something new is revealed, but irrevocable alterations have been made; and who's to say whether the result of the tailoring is any more true than the original was?

But who can blame us for being curious?

All up and down the street the houses looked like any others -- but inside them were people who might be happy, or taking refuge, or steeling themselves to go out into the world, searching for something better. So many lives she would never know about, unfolding behind those doors.

Regardless, this middle section left me feeling a bit flat. I felt like everything was a bit forced, quite artificial, and nowhere near as elegant and personal as the early going.

The last quarter of the book is like a slow motion avalanche. We have omnisciently learned all the "truths", or at least all the "stories" have been told, and now we just plow ahead and watch what happens. Near the end, pretty much every page is a heart-breaking revelation of man's inhumanity to man, all of it with the best of intentions, all of it misguided, misdirected, misplaced. And each little tragedy is oh so unavoidable, like when you can see that somebody is about to walk right off a cliff in the fog and you know exactly what is going to occur but there's nothing you can do and you can't look away.

But in the end, Little Fires Everywhere is a surprisingly hopeful tragedy, because the deepest message of the book is that we each are who we choose to be. We make our own choices, we take our own paths, and we have one tool that is always available to use: choice.

And then she thought about the first day she'd met Mia, what Mia had asked her: What are you going to do about it? It was the first time Izzy had ever felt there was something she could do about anything. Now she remembered what Mia had said to her the last time they'd seen each other, the words that had been echoing through her head ever since: how sometimes you needed to start over from scratch. Scorched earth, she had said, and at that moment Izzy decided what she was going to do.
Little Fires Everywhere, though it has its mis-steps and its clumsiness and its sometimes heavy-handed moments, is a blazing fireball of a book, an eye-opening, stop and look at yourself mirror held up to each of us, and finishing it is like waking from a stupor and seeing everything anew.

I recommend Little Fires Everywhere to all.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Outer Worlds: a very short review

It's Fallout! In outer space! With a psychedelic color pallette!

OK, that's probably a bit too short of a review.

Fallout is a much-beloved long-running series of RPG video games, the first of which came out in (gasp!) 1997 (or even 1988 if you consider Wasteland to be the true origin of the series).

Generally, games in the series feature

  • A post-apocalyptic game world
  • A primary player (you)
  • Various companions who will accompany you on your quests
  • Character customization and development through a system of attributes, skills, and perks
  • Huge, rich, fully-developed worlds
  • A wealth of secondary quests and adventures
  • Factions who offer different visions for how the game will develop, with critical plot choices often pivoting on your decision to support one faction versus another
  • A fair amount of satire and tongue-in-cheek humor

One of the most loved in the Fallout series was Fallout New Vegas, set in the desert of the U.S. Southwest.

The studio that built Fallout New Vegas has now produced Outer Worlds, which stays true to the basic Fallout pattern but resets

  • the game world to outer space
  • your character to a marooned colonist unexpectedly awakened on a drifting colony ship

The visual aspects of the game are delightful; the writing is as snarky as ever, and the various companions, quests, and story lines are as rich and compelling as you would hope for from a Fallout video game.

I've probably put 50 hours into Outer Worlds in the last 3 weeks.

I've been a bit cooped-up, you see.

It's a good game if you are cooped-up.

Friday, April 17, 2020

I'm not sure I'm learning very much from the statistics

Of course, neither statistics nor epidemiology is my field.

But still, how can you avoid being curious?

I looked at the overall statistics for the state, which are broken down county by county.

The ranking by county is an almost perfect match for the rank of counties by population.

For my own county, I tried looking a bit for city-by-city statistics, and found a pretty reasonable list here.

These, too, seem to map quite closely by population ranking. For example, about 25% of the population of Alameda County live in Oakland, and Oakland have almost exactly 25% of the cases.

Although there is more variability here. Berkeley have about 7% of the population, but have only about 4% of the reported cases. Hayward have about 10% of the population but have almost 20% of the reported cases. Fremont have about 14% of the population but have only about 8% of the reported cases.

But with a full 20% of the reported cases being in the categories "Under Investigation", "Known Homeless", "No Address", "Jail", and "Unincorporated", all of this seems very hard to get too precise about.

And I think I've heard that Hayward, specifically, have been the most active in doing testing. I read that people drove from all around the Bay Area to Hayward because you could get tested there. So maybe Hayward have simply tested twice as many people in their city than most of the other cities have done?

I guess I should go back to things that I (think I) know more about.

So I'll go back to writing software. Hope I'm better at that.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Overstory: a very short review

Yes, I know I haven't been writing.

It's worse; I haven't been reading, either.

Well, I am still reading. I read the news, too often. I read piles and piles and piles of technical documents at work (and I write piles and piles of such, too). I read lots of dialogue in the adventure games that I play on my computer.

But, books? Yeah, I haven't been reading books in the last 6 weeks (Boo! Hiss!).

Partly, it's because of circumstances: I read books when I commute, and the 4 feet from my bedroom to my office don't count as that.

But partly it's because I recently finished a wonderful book, and I've been strangely hesitant to start the next book, for fear that it would drive Richard Powers's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory from my head.

And I'm also strangely hesitant to write about The Overstory, because I know I will fail to convey things properly (as you'll see below).

I've discovered that The Overstory is a strangely charged book, among people who pay attention to books.

I've had multiple people, a surprising number of people, tell me that they "hated" The Overstory, that it "repulsed" them, that they "couldn't get into it at all." Even the person who recommended it to me was unwilling to take a stand on it; perhaps she just thought, "Bryan will really like this book," and so recommended it to me?

But she was right: I loved it!

For one thing, this book was aimed at me. I am a child of the 1970's, and a denizen of the Pacific Northwest. When we moved to Los Angeles in June, 1970, the air pollution was so dreadful that our schools would occasionally declare Smog Days when there was no school and we all had to stay indoors. One winter day, 9 months after we moved to California, a storm front briefly cleared the air and I could see the mountains, just 10 short miles from my house but previously invisible.

By the mid-70's I was spending my summers in the mountains, backpacking, swimming, marveling at it all. I went off to the Big City for college, but the draw of the forest was unyielding and before long we were in Northern California where I could walk in the ancient forests and find peace in the quiet redwood groves.

I don't want to claim too much: I'm the sort of tree-lover who can barely tell a spruce from a larch, and couldn't distinguish a beech from a hickory in an hour; my favorite thing about forests is that they exist. Yes, The Overstory was definitely aimed at me.

But less about me, more about the book.

Although it is set over a period of decades, all across the country, The Overstory takes its central plot elements from the well-known Timber Wars incidents of the late 1980's and early 1990's, which arose out of the environmental activist movements of the late 1970's, most notably the harshly polarizing Earth First!.

There was lots of drama during these events, and all sorts of colorful characters, such as Judi Bari and David Chain, and of course Julia Butterfly Hill. Powers draws heavily from the historical records, and many of his primary characters and their escapades feel like they are almost lifted from the press accounts of the time.

Powers spends much of his time, though, trying to dig back into a deeper story. Why did this collection of strange oddballs on the fringes of American society come together in such a passionate manner? What drove them to such lengths? And, in the end, what did they change?

Although such a book (and there are many such) could certainly be written as non-fiction, Powers has chosen historical fiction and thus he can bend and stretch and re-shape the story to his goals, as well as deploy his powerful writing talents.

Some of this is motivation and backstory, to help us even notice the trees all around us

Below her, past the knots of sunbathers, down a shallow auditorium slope, an asphalt path meanders in a gentle S. And just beyond the path, a zoo of trees. A voice up close in her ear says, Look the color!. More shades than there are names, as many shades as there are numbers, and all of them green. There are squat date palms that predate the dinosaurs. Towering Washingtonia with their fan fringes and dense inflorescence. Through the palms, a whole spectrum of broadleaves run from purple to yellow. Coast live oaks, for certain. Shameless, naked eucalypts. Those specimens with the odd, warty bark and exuberant compound leaves she could never find in any guidebook.
And to try to justify why somebody might choose to dedicate their entire life to trees.
She sits on her Shaker chair at the table, listening to the crickets. Long ago her father taught her an old formula, one that converts cricket chirps per minute into degrees Fahrenheit. For sixty years, the nighttime orchestra all around her has been playing one of those folk dances that keep speeding up until all the players tumble in a heap. We would be thrilled if you could talk about any role trees might play in helping mankind to a sustainable future. The conference organizers want a keynote from a woman who once wrote a book on the power of woody plants to restore the failing planet. But she wrote that book decades ago, when she was still young enough for courage and the planet still well enough to rally.

But once his characters are established, Powers turns to the central challenge of the environmental movement: nature versus progress:

These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world's poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it's the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she'd get an ovation.

And how the progress itself can seem to shift from being the means to being the end:

Beyond the trees, the pastel project of the city piles up in cubes of white, peach, and ocher. It builds over the hills toward the towering center, where the buildings rise skyward and turn denser. The raw force of this self-feeding engine, the countless lives that power the enterprise down at ground level, come clear to her. Across the horizon, stands of building cranes break and remake the skyline. All the spreading, urging, testing, splitting, and regenerating course of history, the rings within rings, paid for at every step with fuel and shade and fruit, oxygen and wood ... Nothing in this city is older than a century. In seventy plus seventy years, San Francisco will be saintly at last, or gone.

This meditation on progress, and on transformation, ends up in a long and complex metaphorical examination, funneled through Neelay, a crippled (he fell from a tree as a child!) high-tech entrepeneur, about whether human beings have forgotten their ability to celebrate the wonders of the world around them, and its natural intelligence, in favor of an increasingly abstract and artificial intelligence with needs of its own:

While the prisoner thinks, innovations surge over his head, across the flyover from Portland and Seattle to Boston and New York and back again. In the time it takes the man to form one self-judging thought, a billion packets of program pass over. They course under the sea in great cables -- buzzing between Tokyo, Chengdu, Shengzhen, Bangalore, Chicago, Dublin, Dallas, and Berlin. And the learners begin to turn all this data into sense.


They split and replicate, these master algorithms that Neelay lofts into the air. They're just starting out, like the simplest cells back in the Earth's morning. But already they've learned, in a few short decades, what it took molecules a billion years to learn to do. Now they need only learn what life wants from humans. It's a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren't alone, and they never have been.


High above Adam's prison, new creatures sweep up into satellite orbit and back down to the planet's surface, obeying the old, first hungers, the primal commands -- look, listen, taste, touch, feel, say, join. They gossip to one other, these new species, exchanging discoveries, as living code has exchanged itself from the beginning. They begin to link up, to fuse together, to merge their cells and form small communities. There's no saying what they might become, in seventy plus seventy years.


And so Neely gets out and sees the world. His children comb the Earth tonight with one command: Absorb everything. Eat every scrap of data you can find. Sort and compare more measurements than all of humanity in all of history has yet managed.


Soon enough, his learners will see across the planet. They'll watch the vast boreal forests from space and read the species-teeming tropics from eye level. They'll study rivers and measure what's in them. They'll collate the data of every wild creatures ever tagged and map their wanderings. They'll read every sentence in every article that every field scientist ever published. They'll binge-watch every landscape that anyone has pointed a camera at. They'll listen to tall the sounds of the streaming Earth. They'll do what the genes of their ancestors shaped them to do, what all their forebears have ever done themselves. They'll speculate on what it takes to live and put these speculations to the test. Then they'll say what life wants from people, and how it might use them.

Putting these more strained observations aside for the moment, let's return to the central question of Powers's novel: did anything change?

I think the answer must be a qualified yes, and I think others would agree: When Tree Sitters Heart Lumberjacks

Schultz’s simple gesture was the latest sign that the timber wars that have raged in Northern California’s redwood country for nearly a quarter century are coming to an end. Gone is Pacific Lumber, the 145-year-old company that Charles Hurwitz and his Houston-based Maxxam Inc. took on a binge of old-growth logging in the ’80s and ’90s, making it easily the most despised lumber company in America.

This change comes slowly, and the decisions and challenges are subtler now:

Here the air was cooler, the ground carpeted with sword ferns and huckleberries. Pacific Lumber’s loggers had planned to clear the area, but Humboldt decided to cut selectively, leaving behind clumps of large trees. Adams was still coming to terms with this approach. “Clearcutting is not all bad,” he said, “as long as you don’t clearcut too much.” Graecen, meanwhile, was pondering the future. “Making this into a park wouldn’t be good for the forest,” he mused. Humboldt Redwood’s more intensive management—weeding out invasive species to nurture slow-growing firs and redwoods—could improve the land, he concluded.

Powers surely wants us to put down our phones, stop directing every spare resource into our machine learning engines, and go for a walk in the forest, and even if The Overstory is more polemic than novel, it is yet more substantially a fable of a past that could still be our future.

Who knows? After you read it, you may go and take a walk in the forest, yourself.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

And now it's April

March was a blur.

I was, dimly, aware of the COVID-19 issue way back at the end of December; interestingly, I learned about it from my son (!) who pays a lot more attention to certain things than I do. I remember being in a meeting at work and taking a text message from Dan, and my co-worker asked me what had so distracted me, and I said something like: "my son just asked me what I thought about this new disease in central China", and my co-worker said something like: "you know, most people don't have sons like yours."

True that!

But after that I dove back into work, and sadly was paying only casual attention. One of my habits at work is to take long mid-day walks every day, and so I walk all over downtown SF. Often I walk by Moscone Convention Center, which is just 2 blocks from my office. One day, as I was walking past the convention center, with the streets full of attendees scurrying to lunch at the local restaurants, I read about 2 upcoming tech conferences that were being cancelled because of concerns about all the international visitors coming and going to and from San Francisco.

Suddenly it was like a slap in the face: what am I doing?

The next day (March 4th) was my last day commuting into in my office in San Francisco.

Two days later, my company suggested that all employees who *could* work at home, *should* work at home. Two days after that, the company asked all employees to *please* work at home. Two days after that, the Bay Area went into the shelter-at-home protocols.

All my life in California, we have discussed shelter-at-home protocols. I can still remember when we first moved to California. I was 9 yrs old, and I remember the "duck-and-cover" drills that we did at school. I was 11 when I was in my first major earthquake (the 1972 Los Angeles quake). I remember the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake which re-shaped the entire Bay Area, destroying bridges and freeways and entire neighborhoods, and I remember the terrifying 1991 Oakland firestorm just a few miles away from our house. Much more recently, the horrors of the 2017 and 2018 forest fire seasons are still vivid, and, in fact, when they told us last month that we might want to wear a mask, it turned out that we still had a pair of pristine masks that we'd bought when the air in the Bay Area was filled with choking smoke.

But all the evidence indicates that the disease came to the U.S. on January 20, right here in the Bay Area, and six weeks later I was still calmly enjoying my mid-day walks around downtown San Francisco.

That was not smart of me.

I got very, very lucky.

To be honest, I remember very little of the rest of March. I threw myself into work, working 14+ hours a day, seven days a week, because at least it kept me from hitting "reload" on over and over all day. Donna and I made a whirlwind two day trip down to Los Angeles to check on my parents, returning home to the Bay Area only one hour before Governor Newsom announced that he was expanding the Bay Area protocols to the entire state.

As the shock and panic faded, it became clear how unbelievably lucky I am. I have a wonderful job, with great co-workers, and I'm in a field where I actually can be very effective working at home for weeks at a time. I hope that one day I will return to being a regular office attendee, because I think that the vast majority of my job is actually to be "present" for the other members of my team.

But, increasingly, I'm learning how to be present without actually being present.

If that makes any sense.

I am convinced that this approach works. I think that you can find fault with anything if you try, but I think it's extremely notable that (a) Mayor Breed of San Francisco was pretty much the first government figure in America to take vigorous action regarding the crisis, that (b) CEO Marc Benioff was pretty much the first large company CEO to completely pivot his company to respond to the crisis, (c) the Bay Area as a whole was the first place to demonstrate that shelter-at-home actually works, and (d) Governor Newsom led California to be the first state to embrace the practice state-wide. Here in the Bay Area, at least, the curve was flattened, and with every passing day we are living the example that proves it can be done.

I've said this many times before, but my experience from living in California for almost 50 years is that: new things happen first in the Bay Area. As goes the Bay Area, so goes California. As goes California, so goes the United States. People around the world are different, and nothing is simple, but the Bay Area has been leading the way for half a century, and it's been fascinating, if at times exhausting, to live in the middle of the greatest change engine on the planet. Every few years everything changes, and we change too, and this is how the future happens.

I don't know what comes next. I hope everyone can do everything they can to work together on this. Which will be hard, but the alternative is so much worse.

In the meantime, in my house, we're listening to a lot of music, binge-watching the Great British Baking Show, playing Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order and The Outer Worlds, taking the dog for plenty of walks, failing to exercise adequately but getting lots of sleep and drinking lots of water.

And working. Working, working, working.

May your hunkering down be safe and uneventful and unexpectedly productive, like mine has been so far.

Best wishes.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Bret Devereaux's The Siege of Gondor

Bret Devereaux is a lecturer in history at UNC and specializes in ancient (Roman era) history, and I very much enjoyed his recent multi-part essay on the military history of the Siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings

The whole thing is marvelous. I am certain that, had I been lucky enough to have a history professor as entertaining as this, I should never have chosen mathematics (well, I'm sure I would have ended up in maths anyway, but I wouldn't have dreaded my history classes anywhere nearly as much).

  • Part I: Professionals Talk Logistics
    That may seem a touch early to start a review of the siege, but there are two points to this, both of which are historically illuminating. What we are watching at this stage is what is called operations – the coordinated movement of large bodies of troops to their objective. Operations is the level of analysis between tactics (how do I fight when I get there?) and strategy (why am I fighting at all?). And its worth asking, before proceeding any further: what is Sauron’s overall plan and does it make sense?
  • Part II: These Beacons are Liiiiiiit
    You may be waiting for me to now say that the Beacons of Gondor is a silly, a-historical thing that could never happen. Nope. Not only is this system plausible, it existed, on a similar scale, in the 9th century Byzantine (read: Eastern Roman) Empire. The system stretched more than 400 miles from the frontier to Constantinople, and consisted of fire signals set on high ground at intervals of 30 to 60 miles.

    This was particularly important because of the way the Byzantine Empire’s army was organized into themata or themes. Each theme was a combined military and civil administrative district, with its own small field army that could respond to local raids – however a theme’s army would be insufficient to respond to a major invasion. In the event of a large attack, the beacons rippling back to the capital would bring the tagmata, the main imperial field army, which tended to stay wherever the emperor was (to discourage rebellion in the themes). The tagmata could then roll out to confront the invasion, picking up theme forces as it moved (forces which – because of the beacons – would already be ready). It was an effective system and despite the Byzantine reputation for decline, the period from the 9th century to the 11th century was a period of Byzantine reconquest and consolidation (until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071).

  • Part III: Having Fun Storming the City
    The design of the orc catapults, on the other hand…oof. This is not a great design. On first viewing, I thought these were torsion catapults (like the Roman onager – a late Roman single-armed torsion siege engine), because in the wide shots where the catapult is presumably pure CGI, the firing arm snaps very quickly forward when fired. Counterweight catapults do not ‘snap’ like this, because the counterweight can only accelerate as fast as the constant acceleration due to gravity (9.76 m/s). Nevertheless, in the close shots, it is clear that these are counterweight catapults, with the large stone counterweights clearly visible on the far end of the arm. So what’s wrong?
  • Part IV: The Cavalry Arrives
    They are, however, in the wrong formation. For cavalry, this formation is very deep. The front block looks to be about 12-14 horses deep, and the rear block seems to be about as large, making the entire formation c. 24 x 250 (we were told they had 6,000 horses, you will recall). This is a very deep cavalry formation (presumably so it would neatly fill the screen), which is mostly a problem because of the size of the enemy force. Attacking with such a purposefully narrow front means that the Rohirrim will be enveloping themselves on contact. This is particularly dangerous for cavalry because the feint is so important for cavalry tactics.
  • Part V: Just Flailing About Flails
    Now we see one unfortunate Gondorian soldier tossed what looks like more than 20ft in the air (he is well over the heads of the trolls) – how much energy does it take to do that? In our own simplified high school physics sort of way, we can figure this out, very roughly. The energy required to lift a thing is equal to its potential energy after being lifted, which is equal to it’s mass, times the gravitational constant, times its height, in this case 6,576J (110kg * 9.8m/s^s * 6.1m); the hit must have imparted at least this much energy (more, in fact – we haven’t accounted for friction or air resistance). Since the club is still moving very fast, we might assume it retains something like half of the energy of impact (again, this is almost certainly a low-ball figure), so the initial kinetic energy of the club the moment before impact is c. 13,000J – the equivalent energy to a bit more than 3 grams of TNT.

    As noted above, we might expect a trollish warhammer to be around 13.5kg tops – so how fast does the troll have to get it moving to launch a man? Kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 mass times velocity squared, so (13,000J = 1/2 * (13.5kg) * (v^2)), solve for ‘v’ (velocity in meters per second). 43.9m/s (98mph). That is very fast – for comparison, professional golfers, using long and quite light-weight clubs cap out under 130mph for the highest speed of the head of the club in their swing – and golf clubs are made to maximize head speed. And we have made a lot of favorable assumptions for the troll (for instance, a lot of the energy of impact is going to be absorbed by the body as it crumples or recoil into the hand of the troll; we also assumed the entire mass of the hammer is up at the point, which it isn’t). I think it is fairly safe to say that a troll’s one-handed swing is probably not sufficient to get the impact surface of a club or hammer moving at 100mph.

  • Part VI: Black Sails and Gleaming Banners
    Tolkien’s vision of war is more nuanced, shaped by personal experience. War machines matter, but chiefly as a means of degrading the will of the enemy. The great contest is not between engines or weapons, but between the dread of Mordor and the courage of men. Catapults, towers and rams are merely the means that Mordor uses to deliver its terror. I have tried to flag instances of this in the book notes throughout this series, how close attention Tolkien pays to despair, dread and fear on both sides. The power of the Witch King’s catapults was that “the valour of the City was beaten down” (RotK, 108). But Jackson shows us not the despair of the soldiers but the shattering of buildings. When the Rohirrim arrive, the key thing we are told is that “the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them” (RotK, 124). By contrast, Jackson opts to show us not the wailing of orcs, but the impact of horses.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

What I'm listening to, Winter 2020

A little of this, a little of that.

  • Coldplay, Everyday Life

    This is a lovely album, and it made me realize that I had become shamefully out of touch with Coldplay and their recent body of work, something I'll have to address. We've listened to this album a LOT since we picked it up for driving music on our Arizona vacation in January. 9/10.

  • Chet Faker, Built On Glass

    This was a holiday gift to us from Emily and Carmen, and it has quickly become my wife's favorite album of the last year. The internet calls this "electro-soul", and he definitely channels something you might have heard from Al Wilson or Barry White 50 years ago. But with the production techniques of 2020, and the eclecticism of a Down Under lad. 9/10

  • Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

    Kevin Parker, whose stage name is Tame Impala, is a one-man band, I believe. In the studio, he performs everything himself, laying down multiple overlays using modern electronic wizardry. I don't have any idea what his live performances are like, but the studio albums that he produces are fascinating. I have Innerspeaker and Lonerism, and now I have The Slow Rush, which I like better than the other two. 8/10

  • Local Natives, Hummingbird

    Although Hummingbird is the second Local Natives album, it was the fourth one I arrived at. I started with the amazing Gorilla Manor, as everyone should, but then I went on to Violet Street and Sunlit

    For whatever reason (music is personal, after all), Sunlit is actually my favorite, with Gorilla Manor a close second. I'd say I like Hummingbird slightly more than I like Violet Street.

    Annoyingly, the 2020 Local Natives tour dates completely conflict with long-scheduled travel plans, so I'm going to miss their shows again. Grrr!! 8/10.

  • Nick Murphy, Run Fast Sleep Naked

    I think that Nick Murphy has permanently dropped the "Chet Faker" stage name; at any rate, Run Fast Sleep Naked is released under his own name.

    Having completely nailed a certain persona with Built On Glass, Murphy is now trying to extend and develop other aspects of his music.

    This is going to take time, but I'll stick around for the ride, as his talent is undeniable. 8/10

  • Best Coast, Fade Away

    Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bronze record as Best Coast, and I've long wanted to explore their music. Fade Away is high energy California pop, and I really enjoy it. I'll be returning for more of Best Coast. 7/10

  • James Blake, Overgrown

    Overgrown was another gift from Emily and Carmen. It's definitely growing on me, listen after listen. Blake has released four albums, Overgrown was the second one. I'll certainly be listening to more of his work. 7/10

  • Beatles, Abbey Road Anniversary Edition

    Wow, it's been 50 years since Abbey Road came out, with its famously enigmatic cover picture of the boys striding across the Abbey Road crosswalk.

    Abbey Road was late-form Beatles, just shortly before they broke up.

    We got the 2CD re-issue, with CD1 being the studio release, while CD2 is a selection of alternate mixes, studio experiments, etc.

    It's all lovely. It's the Beatles! 10/10

  • The Grateful Dead, Ready Or Not

    The last actual album that the Grateful Dead released as a group was 1989's Built to Last. But the group continued composing, recording, and playing live music up through Garcia's death in the summer of 1995, and much of that body of music has been released over time.

    Ready or Not is an interesting concept; it is a selection of nine songs composed and performed by the Dead during the years from 1989 to 1995.

    Many of these songs surely would have been released on studio albums, if it hadn't been that they were Done Doing That.

    This is deep, mature music from the Dead, and although the production quality is challenging (these are all live recordings), it still showcases all of their greatest talents: lyrical depth, musical complexity, and the warmth and emotion which was always part of their finest moments.

    During the years since, I've heard a few of these songs performed live by Dead offshoots such as Phil Lesh and Friends or Dead & Co, but it's a true treasure to hear these old and fascinating recordings.

    It's 10/10, but really only for personal reasons. This certainly isn't an approachable album, it's for True Fans only.

    Like me.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Game Day, redux

Oh, sad, sad news about the Queen of Katwe.

But please don't miss this wonderful essay by Jessica Hoffmann Davis: Unsung heroes: Reconceptualizing a video game as a work of art

Meanwhile, my son had announced to his fans that his 75 year old mother was attempting to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and they responded with wonderful comments of support. They were moved I’d taken such trouble to see what my son had done, moved that an “older” person would make the effort to experience “their art.” I was buoyed by their support; they called my efforts “wholesome.” They made me feel welcome and proud of my novice exploration of the world they knew so well. And what did others know of the magic I was discovering in an area the uninformed consider a “waste of time”?

Perusing the topics of some of the very many academic articles on the subject, I noted that while there is persistent concern for the effects of violence in games, scholars in the field recognize a variety of positive aspects. Of interest to me, they acknowledge what I felt first-hand: the experience of “presence” as in actually being there within the game as well as a sense of personal efficacy as I moved along (Vorderer, Bryant, 2006). So much to learn from historical content to usable skills such as manual dexterity, spatial awareness, and the attention to detail inherent to aesthetic education.

As I came to the end of the RDR2 story, final scenes brought me to tears. The characters found the ways they were meant to find but not always what I would have wished for them. Since my son is a veteran actor, I have seen him in many roles, but never as an animated version of himself—a version that visually walked his walk and audibly exploited the dark and playful regions of his wonderful voice. My journey had allowed this encounter with an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary role. And I had also had the extraordinary experience of playing a role; well, sharing a role with the character Roger Clark so marvelously brought to life. I became facile with a venue I had previously only seen from a distance—a grandson ignoring me, attending somehow to this mysterious arena for play. I entered that world, became absorbed, and didn’t hear when I was called for dinner.

Her son, you see, is Benjamin Byron Davis, who plays "Dutch van der Linde" in the game.

In other gaming news, I'm on the final stretches of the marvelous Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; but more on that another day.

And I'm already dreaming of what comes next. What do you think about The Pedestrian? I think it looks perfect, but of course I haven't played it yet.

In fact, I'm spending rather too much time not playing games right now.

But when I'm not playing games, I certainly do enjoy reading about them. One of my favorite sites is Red Blob Games, which has just fabulously-beautiful articles on how video game engines actually work.

But have I raved to you about, which is generously hosting all 3 issues of the fascinating, if short-lived, Game AI Pro series of books from CRC Press.

Start reading one article at Game AI Pro, and you'll soon be reading them all.

And, to close things off, let's get back to the Great Game. May I encourage you to spend a few minutes with this beautiful video, and remember that our children are our future?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

I clearly haven't been paying very much attention ...

Who are:

  • Michael Bennet
  • Rocky de la Fuente III
  • Mark Stewart Greenstein
  • John K. Delaney
  • Mosie Boyd
  • Michael A. Ellinger
  • and Joe Sestak

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ferry Service continues to expand

A large new terminal is being built to split the ferry system's busiest, most popular route into two separate routes: WETA To Expand Ferry Commute Service in Alameda and Oakland

The Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal is currently under construction on the former Naval Air Station Alameda. It is on track to be completed in mid-2020. The WETA Board on Thursday approved an agreement with the City of Alameda to operate ferry service at the new terminal and endorsed staff’s recommendation to take this opportunity to revamp Alameda commute service for the benefit of commuters. The Alameda City Council approved the agreement at its Tuesday meeting. “Alameda ferry ridership has boomed in recent years. Reorienting our Alameda commute service to use the new Seaplane Lagoon terminal will help us meet that growing demand and improve the entire ferry experience for passengers,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director. “We’re also thrilled to expand our commute service in Oakland to help ease roadway congestion and continue to build out the Bay’s ferry system.”

The announcement is a bit confusing in its description of which routes will still visit the old terminal:

Under the plan, the existing Main Street Alameda Ferry Terminal will continue to be used for non-commute ferry service to San Francisco (including weekends and special service to Oracle Park and Chase Center) and for the South San Francisco service.

Meanwhile, much sooner, the newest ferry dock at the Ferry Building is opening over President's Day Weekend: Ferry Gate and Queue Changes in Downtown S.F. Coming Tuesday, Feb. 18

Beginning on Tuesday, February 18, Richmond ferry arrivals and departures will be reassigned to Gate E at the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal. Also, there will be access and queuing changes for Alameda/Oakland and Harbor Bay passengers in Downtown San Francisco.

During the afternoon commute runs, it's quite chaotic in this area of the waterfront. There are thousands of people out and about on the street who aren't even taking the ferries, just enjoying the beautiful waterfront access. Then, when you combine that with another thousand or so busy commuters who are Just Trying To Get Home, it can be a bit of a kerfluffle.

But it all seems to work out in the end.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: a very short review

For a long time, I've been thinking about reading some of David Foster Wallace's work. Wallace is frequently cited in the same paragraph as writers such as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, William S. Burroughs, etc.: "important" authors whom you "ought" to read.

But Infinite Jest just seems infinitely intimidating; each time I get near it I feel exhausted and have to go read something else.

For 6 months at least.

So I thought: maybe I can approach Wallace in easy steps, and picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

It's definitely much more approachable, but I'm not sure it's much of a stepping stone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays that Wallace wrote fairly early in his career, around the time that he was teaching at Illinois State and working on Infinite Jest.

The seven essays are all non-fiction, though, and are sort of all over the place.

There are two essays on Tennis. Wallace relates that he was an avid tennis player as a youth and played seriously and competitively for most of his life. They're fairly interesting, although personally I'm not really all that interested in tennis.

There are two essays on post-modernism: one is an investigation of the literary aspects of television, the other is about H. L. Hix's Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. These are simply dreadful essays. They are dense, arcane, opaque, but most of all they are dull, dull, dull.

There is an essay about David Lynch and the making of Lost Highway. Ugh. Perhaps if Wallace had chosen an appealing director and an appealing movie? But then, that wouldn't be Wallace, I guess.

The high spot of the book, for me, were the other two essays.

Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All is an essay about attending the 1993 Illinois State Fair. Somehow, this essay manages to be crude, raunchy, smug, elitist, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and kind, all at once.

Sometimes even in the same paragraph!

The horses are in their own individual stalls, with half-height doors and owners and grooms on stools by the doors, a lot of them dozing. The horses stand in hay. Billy Ray Cyrus plays loudly on some stableboy's boom box. The horses have tight hides and apple-sized eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish. I've rarely been this close to fine livestock. The horses' faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins. The racers are lanky, velvet over bone. The draft and show horses are mammoth and spotlessly groomed and more or less odorless -- the acrid smell in here is just the horses' pee. All their muscles are beautiful; the hides enhance them. Their tails whip around in sophisticated double-jointed ways, keeping the flies from mounting any kind of coordinated attack. (There really is such a thing as a horsefly.) The horses all make farty noises when they sigh, heads hanging over the short doors. They're not for petting, though. When you come close they flatten their ears and show big teeth. The grooms laugh to themselves as we jump back. These are special competitive horses, intricately bred, w/ high-strung artistic temperaments. I wish I'd brought carrots: animals can be bought, emotionally. Stall after stall of horses. Standard horse-type colors. They eat the same hay they stand in. Occasional feedbags look like gas masks. A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing. He's at the back of his stall getting combed, and the door's wide open, and we watch him pee. The stream's an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain males, an expression I'd heard but never truly understood till just now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.

The title essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is similar in many ways; it is an essay about taking a seven day luxury cruise through the Caribbean. It's mellower, quieter, more reflective, almost melancholy, and all of these things lessen the overall result. Wallace is either having fun, or he's not, and the result certainly comes through in his writing. But this essay, though perhaps less hilarious (and certainly less raunchy) is also more insightful, and more kind; perhaps it is just a result of him getting older? (Though: the two essays were written only 3 years apart, the first when he was 31 years old, and the second when he was 34, so I don't think age had much to do with it.)

I'll still don't know if I'll ever try Infinite Jest, or The Pale King, or The Broom of the System. Maybe someday.

But at least I feel like I understand David Foster Wallace a bit better.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Conversations with Friends: a very short review

Sally Rooney's Normal People is on everybody's Top Books list nowadays, but before getting to that I decided to start with her first book, Conversations with Friends

I loved this odd little book!

I'm definitely not the target audience for Conversations with Friends; it's absolutely a Millenial's book, and that generation gap hit me like a hammer. Plus my gender is wrong, I'm on the wrong continent, the main characters of the book are wholly unlike me, etc.

Still, it's fresh, exciting, immediate, and thoroughly a joy to read.

I liked it so much that I was willing to overlook lots of Rooney's quirks, such as doing away with quotation marks for dialog, or telling significant parts of the story via text message, or having a character whose emails are sent in all lower case.

The harder quirk to overlook, in my reading at least, was the super-naturally self-aware nature of our narrator, Frances. I know I'm not the most introspective person, but there's just no way that a 21-year-old character could be so vividly in control of her own consciousness like this:

When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over her shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I though she probably gave to all her subjects, as if to say: you're no ordinary subject to me, you're a special favorite. I knew I would enviously practice this smile later in a mirror.


Although I couldn't specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole setup, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn't interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed."

Rooney uses this technique throughout, to tell what is really an inter-mingled story of four very vivid but separate characters from one character's sole narration, allowing our heroine Frances to divine what is in every one else's mind and reveal it to us in passages such as these.

Do people really have such preternaturally accurate reading of each other, especially when they are barely 21?

I guess so; after all, Rooney herself was barely older when she wrote Conversations with Friends, and she clearly has tremendous insight into what makes people tick.

Anyway, why quibble!

Conversation with Friends is wonderful, Rooney is wonderful, that's all I have to say about that!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Game Day

Yes, there's a game today.

But lately, I've been thinking about other games; I barely watched any professional sports in 2019 (though: go Leicester! go Jamie Vardy!)

Meanwhile, perhaps because GDC is just around the corner, a round-up of other types of gaming:

  • The Digital Antiquarian: Master of Orion
    So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.
  • How Tabletop RPGs Are Being Reclaimed From Bigots and Jerks
    “Sometimes a game will touch on something that may affect your players, because it (or something like it) happened to your players IRL [in real life],” she said. “Rape is probably the most obvious example of this, but gaslighting, torture, and animal death are others. And playing with those can be hard!”

    The content warnings aren’t there to stop people from playing tabletop games that touch on those themes, they’re meant to give people a framework for including them responsibly. The process is similar to how a well-run BDSM community treats consent. There’s lots of communication and before, after, and during sessions and checklists that help players and partners find create a list of their dos, don’ts, and maybes. A BDSM scenster’s checklist helps consenting adults understand limits before they start fucking. An RPG players checklist does much the same.

    According to Evil Hat, setting boundaries early leads to better games. “There’s no way to know every player’s past and there’s no reason anyone should be obligated to disclose their entire personal history before a game gets underway," the company told me. "So instead, a content warning and the use of Safety Tools (like the X card, Script Change, or Lines & Veils) creates an atmosphere of trust and respect. You’re setting the boundaries: ‘Hey, we’re all here to have fun—but if the game suddenly crosses a line and stops being fun, let’s pause or redirect that so we can get back on track and make sure it’s enjoyable for the whole table.’”

  • Kentucky Route Zero on the Switch is a beautiful, sometimes infuriating dream
    For seven long years now, players living in the more text- and PC-focused rays of the gaming sphere have been periodically receiving strange, often-bewildering transmissions, occasional invitations to walk along America’s rough and mysterious subconscious roads. Released in fits and drips for the better part of a decade, Cardboard Computer’s magical realism road trip odyssey Kentucky Route Zero has been “coming out” since its first act dropped in 2013, beguiling players with its sleepy, quasi-somnambulistic approach to topics ranging from the obsessions of mid-century American playwrights, to the intricacies of computer game design, to the mounting and soul-eroding effects of looming medical debt. And now, amazingly, that process is over: Kentucky Route Zero is now out, fully and finally, and with a home console version containing all five of its acts (and various ancillary materials to boot).
  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order beat EA expectations by selling 8m copies
    "Respawn delivered an expertly crafted high-quality experience with outstanding gameplay that thrilled players, made many of the game of the year lists and sold beyond our projections for the quarter," EA exec Andrew Wilson added.
  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Ninth Sister fight - tips on how to beat this dangerous boss
    The Ninth Sister is one of the key antagonists in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and after an unfortunate encounter in the first mission, we all know that we’re going to have to come up against her later on in the campaign. This boss fight is trickier than any you’ll have come across so far, and requires careful footwork and a good understanding of this powerful foe.
  • The Pedestrian Is A Good Platformer, But Great Puzzle Game
    there are key setpieces throughout The Pedestrian where you’re asked not to run blissfully across a single sign, but to stop and arrange a while bunch 0f them together in a particular order so you can then run through them unimpeded. This involves a lot of drawing in the air with your finger, hard thinking then some trial and error, before finally completing a puzzle, running free like the wind for a few seconds then running headfirst into the next puzzle.

    This gets a little frustrating, because the world behind The Pedestrian is a lovely one! It’s downright whimsical, with backgrounds bustling with life and cheery music that whisks you through each environment like a feelgood 90s sitcom. The game spends so long torturing you in the foreground that I wish we could have spent some more time with the background instead.

    But I get it, the signs are the game here, and the puzzles that drive them are fantastic. Things get hard surprisingly early on, but they never feel impossible because everything you need to do is clearly labelled and designed, to the point where even at my darkest most frustrating points I still felt like I was at least on the right track, and just hadn’t fully explored all my options yet.

  • 'A Plague Tale' Audio Design: Not Only Squeaks
    Creating an impactful soundscape for a game is a real challenge. How about an Audio that will not only serve the story but bring it up to the next level. With all the constraints linked to a small development team with a small budget taken into account, A Plague Tale: Innocence's Audio Director discusses his approach to Sound Design in order to offer a memorable and immersive experience.

    How to strengthen a scene? How to support gameplay? How to help a player to focus or to understand a level? Overall, how to give a game that thing that makes it special?

Saturday, February 1, 2020

I've entered the V-NAND future

I've got a pair of (relatively) old computers at home that I use for a variety of things.

One thing that I use these computers for is to keep extra copies of backups of the other computer data in my life (my wife's photo collection, her documents, a backup of my parents computer, etc.)

For years, I've used trusty old HDD drives (a WD 4TB drive in one machine, an ancient but amazingly reliably Seagate Barracuda 7200 500 GB drive in the other) as these extra storage devices for holding data that I'm trying not to lose.

Recently, I've upgraded both machines to contain Samsung QVO V-NAND SSD devices.

Nowadays, a 860 QVO 1TB internal device is just over $100, which is a wonderful price for the functionality.

It's still early days with my use of these devices, but so far I have no complaints whatsoever.

If you're looking to upgrade an older computer, consider one of these!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

California has a new primary date

Ever since I can remember, the California Presidential Primary Election was always held in early June.

This year, it will be March 3, 2020.

This week, we got our "Official Voter Information Guide" from the California Secretary of State, which is the office that operates state elections.

The guide was rather confusing, because there was next to no voter information in it!

From what I can gather, the March 3 election will have two items on the ballot:

  1. Select your preferred presidential candidate (from some list not yet known, or at least not contained in the Official Voter Information Guide)
  2. Vote on Proposition 13. This turns out to be most of what is contained in the Official Voter Information Guide. Proposition 13 is a bond authorization measure, put on the ballot by the California State Legislature.
The Official Voter Information Guide also contained a number of pages about the 2020 Census, and refers you to, which is a somewhat operational website with some cursory information. I'm not sure why the Secretary of State didn't refer us to instead; that seems like a much better website.

Which exact list of presidential candidates will be on the March 3 ballot?

Will there be a separate election in early June, for issues other than the Presidential Primary Election?

How did this proposition come to be numbered 13? How are propositions numbered, anyway?

What is and how is it related to

Oh, I'm just full of questions, aren't I?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thoughts from a trip to Tucson

We spent the long Martin Luther King Day weekend in Tucson and the surrounding area.

The Sonoran Desert is spectacularly beautiful, with its Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti, its unusual animals (Javelina, Coati, Caracara, etc.), its mountains and valleys.

It does actually rain in this part of the world! An enormous storm crossed Southern Arizona on the day we arrived. Traffic was slow, roads were washed out, and there was over 6 inches of snow on the mountain tops.

People in Arizona do a lot of driving. Gas is cheap, there are no tolls, and the rental car facility at the Phoenix airport is the largest one I think I've seen. The cities are all sprawled out, with small downtown areas and literally miles of suburbs. (Speedway Avenue in Tucson, runs some 25 miles from East Tucson to West Tucson).

We flew in and out of Phoenix. Tucson has a nice airport, but there was no direct flight we could take, and the connecting flights meant that we would have had a 4.5 hour plane trip to get all the way to Tucson, as opposed to a 100 minute plane trip to get to Phoenix. Since it barely takes 90 minutes to drive from Phoenix to Tucson the choice was easy.

The most straightforward way to get from Phoenix to Tucson is to hop on the freeway, but a much more beautiful route is found by taking Arizona 79, also known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. This lovely road runs a simple straight path through a Saguaro-forested high desert plain. For large portions of the drive you are completely in the wilds, with no billboards, power lines, businesses, or much of anything else to distract you. Way out in the middle of the drive, if you pay attention, you'll come across the quiet memorial to the spot where the famous movie star Tom Mix crashed his car and died.

We took Arizona 79 because I was hoping to get to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but we ran out of time for that side trip, sadly.

The Tucson Jazz Festival is very nice. The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Big Band is a traveling competition band of high school jazz musicians who have won a number of awards. Christian McBride and Inside Straight played a great show; McBride also sat in with the TJI band for two fun opening songs and did those kids ever enjoy that!

The Fox Tucson theater has been beautifully restored and is gorgeous inside. Even sitting in the balcony we had comfortable seats with a great view.

The Desert Trails B&B is a beautiful spot in a wonderful location. John and Steffi are lovely hosts. At night the stars come out and the coyotes call.

The Casa Grande National Monument was an unexpected treasure and a lovely stop.

The food in Tucson is great, just as great as all the guidebooks and travel magazines say. We had excellent meals at the 1055 Brewing Company, at Reilly Craft Pizza, at Zinburger, and could have had many more great meals if we’d had the time

The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is just as remarkable as everyone says. The views are incomparable and the road is well built and easy to drive, with many pullouts and vista spots, even on a Sunday afternoon during peak season. After the recent storm, there were still several inches of snow at the mountain top and children were everywhere, happily sledding and making snowmen.

While driving the road, we enjoyed listening to the interesting Mt. Lemmon Science Tour, a nicely-presented audio tour of the things you see along the road. The audio tour is well-paced and timed to match your driving time, and easy to re-sync if you lose track or stop at a pull out or vista stop for a while.

You can't see the famous Davis-Monthan "Boneyard" from street level, but from the vistas atop the Mount Lemmon road you can get a great idea for the size and layout of the facility, particularly if you have a decent pair of binoculars.

The Gates Pass Road is fun too, and we enjoyed the views from the vista point at the top of the pass in Tucson Mountain Park.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is very nicely arranged with nice easy pathways and clear signs. The animals seemed well cared for and we enjoyed the quiet aviary. I think we probably should have stayed to see the Raptor Free Flight demonstration, but it would have extended our 2.5 hour visit to 4 hours and we were in a hurry to move on.

There were beautiful arts and crafts at the Casa Grande visitor center, at the Desert Museum gift shop, and at Mark Bahti's arts store. There looked to be several other fine places that we didn’t have time for.

Downtown Tucson is nice. Parking was cheap and safe. The streets are clean and people walk around comfortably.

We didn’t find time to ride the new streetcar.

If you decide to go to Tucson, mid January is a nice time. Locals told us that the gem show makes the city a bit crowded.

There is indeed a small wine growing region in the Sonoita ("Son-OY-tah") and Elgin area, mostly growing hot-weather Southern Mediterrean grapes like Tempranillo and Aglianico. We stopped at Callaghan (pronounce the 'G'). The guests at the winery had brought a collection of friendly dogs.

The Ramsey Canyon Preserve is beautiful and a vivid, startling change from the desert valley floor. Beyond Ramsey Canyon stretches the Coronado National Forest, with many additional trails to explore, though we turned back after a 2 hour hike due to time restrictions.

It was a challenge, though, to feel completely enchanted with the wilderness vistas, as the US government law enforcement blimp hovered over the forest preserve. The blimp "is an aerial platform for radar equipment used to detect aircraft illegally entering the US (Hermann Zillgens and Associates. 1991). They provide radar data for US Customs, the DoD, and the FAA. They operate year round, 24 hours per day within approximately nine hectares (23 acres) of the South Range."

There are law enforcement checkpoints on most roads south of Tucson.

Some restaurants and shops have signs asking you not to bring your weapons into the store, most don’t.

On the Mount Lemmon road a man was parked in the pullout, firing his pistol into the side of the hill.

Two patrons at a corner store were having a loud conversation about how much they hate California.

A man told us not to park our car at the Saguaro National Park trail head because our car would get broken into (we decided to go hiking elsewhere).

If you decide to take the Pinal Pioneer Parkway between Tucson and Phoenix, you'll end up passing through Florence, AZ, a small town that sits about midway along the route. I think that Florence was once a hot spot for the immense copper mining industry that is spread across Southern Arizona.

Nowadays, Florence has a county prison, a state prison, and a federal Homeland Security ICE prison. The three prisons sit one after the next on the main road, presenting nearly a full mile of heavy barbed wire and elevated guard towers. There are probably more prisons here; the first suggested Google search for "Florence AZ prison" is "How many prisons are there in Florence AZ?" I don't think there's any way to avoid this stretch of Arizona 79 unless you decide to avoid the entire scenic parkway entirely, which is probably a perfect example of the phrase "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow

Wow, is it really 2020 already? I've been blogging less, I guess.

Sorry about that.

Time is passing for everyone; over the last 18 months, the Grateful Dead lost both their songwriters, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow.

Robert Hunter was, by far, the better songwriter; songs like Truckin', Uncle John's Band, Scarlet Begonias, and Friend of the Devil will, I hope, still be sung a hundred years from now.

John Perry Barlow was, however, and trying to take nothing away from Hunter, the more interesting man. He thought a lot about public policy and political issues, and published some very interesting essays.

Among those essays, he's definitely best known for A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he attempted to take the deep-rooted American notions of Free Speech and extend them significantly farther:

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

He worked much harder on this idea, and, I think, gave it a pretty interesting and well-considered foundation, in his subsequent essay, Selling Wine Without Bottles: the Economy of Mind on the Global Net.

The Declaration and the Economy of Mind were deliberately polemic and provocative, but the organization he helped co-found, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, remains one of the most interesting technology-related organizations that we have.

These are not easy ideas, and I've always thought that Barlow deserved more credit for focusing attention on them, and getting others to at least think about them seriously.

Among his other writings, I was always quite partial to The 25 Principles of Adult Behavior, which still hold water some forty years later, and, I suspect, will still be good ideas centuries from now.

After his death, the EFF held a John Perry Barlow Symposium, and the Duke Law and Technology Review has now published the proceedings. There are some pretty interesting essays in the proceedings, it's definitely, as they say, food for thought.

This is good; these thoughts and ideas deserve to continue to be discussed. We haven't got it all figured out, just yet.

And I think that is a sentiment that Robert Hunter would agree with, too. As he wrote in Ripple:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Let's all keep on talking.

Happy new year.